On the road between Zurich and Esslingen, there was a pear tree. In November 1964, a white Alfa Romeo sped past it, then stopped, turned and drove back. The car did repeated that manoeuvre once more, and turned around again. This third time, it did not pass the tree but drove straight into it. The driver died four days later. He was Hugo Koblet, champion of the 1950 Giro and the 1951 Tour de France.
At the time of his death Koblet had been retired six years, was deeply in debt and experiencing marital problems. It was a dramatic fall from grace for one of the most stylish and likeable riders of the era.
After the horrors of World War Two, which culminated in a vicious civil war between Fascists and Socialists, the Giro was reborn in 1946. A symbol of hope and unification, the race played a role in healing the scars of fighting, partly because the heroes of those first post-war editions were all Italian. Between ’46 and ’49, Fausto Coppi, Gino Bartali and Fiorenzo Magni captured the public’s imagination with their exploits.
For a country sick of conflict, cycling rivalries were an enjoyable diversion. Into the Fifties, the Giro was very much an Italian affair. Since its inception in 1909, there had been 32 editions and 18 winners: all Italians. To become the modern race we know today, the Giro had to become more international.
Ironically, the start of this process was Fausto Coppi falling off his bike.
Coppi was the outright favourite for the 1950 edition and had promised to attack his rivals Bartali and Koblet on the first stage in the Dolomites. Sadly, he never got the chance.
Moving up the inside of the peloton, Coppi tried to pass Armando Peverelli on his peer’s left. This was a bad decision because Peverelli had lost the use of his left eye following a crash in the 1949 Tour and couldn’t see the great champion in his periphery. At that moment Peverelli moved to the left, Coppi touched his wheel and fell heavily, breaking his pelvis. It was to be the end of Coppi’s season.
After Coppi’s exit, Koblet went about the business of winning the Giro with an intelligent and logical approach that infuriated Bartali. Imitating the Tour, the Giro organisers had introduced time bonuses for stage wins and for crossing the high mountains. Koblet made a strategy of targeting these bonuses. He also took the Bianchi team, left without a leader, under his wing. Coppi’s team-mates gladly worked for Koblet because they knew it was their best chance of finishing the race with a decent financial bonus.
After the finish in Rome, where Koblet won with a five-minute lead, Bartali fumed: “We see that Swiss gold was worth more than love of country.”
Koblet dominated the 1951 Tour de France, taking five stages and beating Coppi, Bartali and triple winner Louison Bobet. Aged only 26, it was to be the pinnacle of his career. Though he still posted some good results in the following years, including second place at the 1952 Giro, Koblet’s power gradually diminished and he retired in 1958.
At his peak, Koblet was renowned for his fluid pedaling style and his impeccably groomed appearance. In his back pocket he carried a comb, a bottle of eau de cologne and a damp sponge. If he was winning alone, he would ease up shortly before the line to comb his hair and wash his face. If he noticed any pretty girls by the roadside, he’d blow them a kiss. As well as being handsome, well-dressed and wealthy, he was reportedly a charming man, always smiling and congenial.
Whether this portrait is accurate or the embroidered product of cycling mythology, Koblet was a troubled man by the time of his death. Some have attributed the decline of his final years to the drug abuse that allegedly fuelled his career (Coppi once attacked Koblet in the Giro specifically because he suspected Koblet was suffering the after-effects of overdoing it with amphetamines the previous day).
For Koblet, as with so many talented Grand Tour riders, the climb to victory was exhilarating. But after every climb, there is a descent.